• Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Military and corporate business leadership: Embracing the difference


Like beauty, leadership seems to live in the eye of the beholder and while we may recognize it in action, it is difficult to supply a universal description. The concept of leadership appears to be driven by myths; for instance, some say “leaders are born, not made;” others are of the view that “leaders must be charismatic and have unblemished private lives;” while a few say “leadership is management by another word;” there are those who believe that “leadership is for generals, corporate business leaders and politicians.” Yet, history, experience and observation contradict such glittering generalizations.

At one time or the other, you must have heard, read, and perhaps seen a highly intelligent, highly skilled business chief executive or military top brass who was promoted into a leadership position only to fail at the job. And you may also know stories of generals, admirals, air marshals, or captains of industry, with solid but not extraordinary intellectual abilities and technical skills who were promoted into similar positions but performed well in office. You may be wondering how an intelligent and highly skilled person fails when assigned leadership responsibilities. It is because of the phenomenon known as leadership. “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomenon on earth. Leadership is key to the success of the military both in peace and war, and to the survival of the corporate business not only when the business environment is friendly but also when you have a dysfunctional atmosphere.

Today, leaders in the military and corporate business face tremendous pressure to meet short term targets and solve functional problems. In the military and corporate business world, you have to solve problems and overcome challenges. In fact, what is common to leaders in the military and the corporate world is courage, competence, and character. Character is the foundation; competence is about your skills of leadership and execution; courage is the energy that keeps you doing the right thing, even when there are challenges.

Both military and corporate leaders have competitors who are trying to beat them. So both require information, strategies, plans and good execution to win. The difference is the context and the fact that one is life and death of humans and the other is life and death of the company. The idea of war is however, much more serious and so the two must never be confused.

A wartime military needs competent leadership at all levels of command. No one has yet figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led. Of course these are significant differences, but there are certainly many correlations. Mainly, you have a mission and people as well as obstacles to overcome. Both the military and corporate business require leaders to influence their people to achieve results and meet their goals.

Negotiating is also similar to the military and corporate business leaders. Negotiations in any contemporary society affect all aspects of individual and collective life. Whether in the military or corporate business, negations are in constant session. In fact, you can negotiate anything- war, businesses, alliances between nations etcetera. That is why some scholars refer to the world as a “giant negotiating table.”

There are very few differences between the military and the corporate business. The military is a large, complex and non-profit organization while the corporate business is established for profit. Budgeting is another area of difference between the military and the corporate business. The military does not have to worry about where the money is going to come from after budgeting to make a change. But this is not the case with corporate business leader. The corporate leader bothers about sourcing for funds to implement the firm’s budget. Certainly, there could be a budget constraint for both leaders, but how to get funds is a big difference.

Most of the differences in styles or methods of leadership can be related to differences in cultures. The basis of the military culture is the oath taken that puts mission accomplishment above life itself. The expectation of personal sacrifice is key. In the corporate world, loyalty is to the owner of the business. In the military, fundamental allegiance is neither to boss nor to the unit but to the Constitution. The culture of the military continues to place more emphasis on personal character than on personal expertise.

There is a big difference between the military and the private sector in corporate governance practice. Corporate governance is the “collection of mechanisms, processes and relations by which corporations are controlled and operated.” According to Mark Goyder, “governance and leadership are the yin and yang of successful organizations. If you have leadership without governance you risk tyranny, fraud and personal fiefdoms. If you have governance without leadership you risk atrophy, bureaucracy, and indifference”.

The military has the presidency, members of the defence committees of the National Assembly (NASS) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) interfering often in the day-to-day activities of the military. For instance, the MOD headed by the Minister, and ably assisted by the Permanent Secretary and other directors’ form the broad spectrum of those who form the corporate governance structure of the military. The NASS also performs oversight functions. Some of these individuals are politicians while others are bureaucrats. So you can see the predicament of the military in corporate governance.

In corporate businesses, the shareholders elect the board of directors who in turn determine the Chief Executive Officer, approve the overall strategic direction of the corporation and monitor its operations. Although, corporate businesses are subject to shareholder constituencies, such influence is far from the direct impact of the NASS over the military. It may probably be unfair to equate NASS oversight in managing the military with that of a corporate board as it oversees the direction of a corporation.

There is a saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Military leaders and corporate business executives are doers; they execute. Knowledge is useless to both leaders until it has been translated into actions. But before springing into action, the executive needs to plan his course. The action plan is a statement of intentions rather than a commitment. It must not become a constraint. It should be revised often, because every success creates new opportunities. So does every failure. The same is true for changes in the business environment, in the market, and especially in people within the enterprise- all these changes demand that the plan be revised. A written plan should anticipate the need for flexibility. Planning in the corporate business can equally be frustrating. Looking ahead reliably more than 3 years would be stretching one’s luck. For instance, if you build manufacturing capacity too soon, you have got idle capital sitting on the ground. If the plants are built too late and you cannot supply your customers it affects your company negatively because it takes time to design and build these plants.

Generals will plan for battles when they are going to war. Planning in the military is much more difficult to determine than it might be for corporate business because of political actors-presidency, NASS and the MOD. How does the military lead in ways that position it for the future while also meeting current demands? Strategic Thinking, Strategic Acting, and Strategic Influencing are essential skills to adapt, innovate and succeed well into the future.

Without an action plan, the general may become a prisoner of events in the battlefield. But as you plan, there may likely be constant interference from political leadership in order to attain the military objective of the war. Let’s take a 10-year transformation plan of any military organization. You may be surprised that at the end of the tenth year, you might have barely achieved only 50 percent of the plan because of cut in defence spending, and change in technology, among other problems. So changes in defence directions will affect your plans. And without check-ins to reexamine the plan as events unfold, the military may have no way of knowing which events really matter and which ones do not. There is no way you can plan for the future, let alone prepare for it, if you do not know your business. Thank you.


MA. Johnson